Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Moving Beyond Empty Words


        Almost ten years ago David Pulsipher wrote about the “extraordinary agility” pacifists must use to make their case:

Crafting an argument…requires navigating a spiritual minefield…The Book of Mormon…contains the most hazards. Compiled by a seasoned general the text exudes a just war sensibility. To diffuse the power of that story Latter Day Stain pacifists resort to…arguing that a careful observation of the larger Book of Mormon narrative speaks to the futility of violence, its endless cycles, and its inability to achieve lasting peace.[1]

        With this in mind I’ve been shocked and bemused to find it exhibited so frequently by those that write for and follow Latter Day Saint Peace Studies. I regularly see people who disqualify quotes from the Book of Mormon as being less than Jesus. They say that Moroni was just a general, Pahoran just a chief judge (and often mix the two) to say they weren’t authoritative. They claim that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where Jesus superseded the law means that his words supersede all other scriptures. This especially applies to the Book of Mormon. Of course Jesus himself said that whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants it is the same (D&C 1:38), and that Mormon wrote that righteous leaders were in fact prophets (3 Nephi 3:19) so I don't buy those arguments and think they are merely picking and choosing which scriptures to accept based on what they like. 

        But by disqualifying they are missing out on even more. Finding how seemingly contradictory scriptures interact with each other can increase one’s appreciation for matters of war and peace, and lead one away from facile, proof texted arguments. To show an example of that I will use my research into classical Chinese military theory beyond Sunzi.

        Guanzi, considered the epitome of good Confucian ministers said that good rulers should “vanquish [their enemies] without resorting to treachery.”[2]  This, along with the claim of Confucius that the “sage is not crafty,”[3] seems to directly contradict Sunzi’s words that “warfare is the way of deception.”[4] The easy explanation is that Sunzi was an amoral cretin. Yet he became the most famous theorist and was used by emperors and leaders throughout Chinese history. Like those figures that used deception in warfare and remained good Confucians, there are ways to reconcile the two.

        First, Guanzi mentions treachery which is different than deception. The Chinese believed in what various translators have described as orthodox and unorthodox attacks. The orthodox pins down, or “spikes”[5] an enemy to prepare for the army’s unorthodox or “tilting” maneuver. But the difference between the two can become blurred. If an enemy is expecting a surprise flank attack, the surprising unorthodox attack instead becomes the expected orthodox attack. So, the definitions of these terms can often change during one battle, depending on the intent of the attacker and perceptions of those being attacked.

        A conversation from the film The Princess Bride (1987) serves as a memorable illustration. Westley, the hero, enters a battle of wits with Vizzini the Sicilian. In the course trying to outwit each other, Vizzini described how he knows that his opponent knows his mind to predict Vizzini’s next action. Vizzini goes on to say (with dazzlingly circular logic) that, sometimes, his opponent knows that he knows, so he must do something completely different. But his opponent must know that he knows that he knows…so he must do what was originally predicted. The repetition of “he knows that I know” represents the inexhaustible permutations between opting for the orthodox and unorthodox and describes the difficulty in trying to know your enemy while trying to keep your own strategy a secret. 

        In short, both armies know they are entering a maze of mirrors, with complex prebattle maneuvers and fake feints and real deceptions, then they are accepting the parameters of the battle. There is nothing treacherous or crafty upon entering a struggle in which both know the rules. On top of that, a sudden surprise attack from an unexpected direction could produce a psychological trap, win the battle without a fight, and become a moral, bloodless, and proper Confucian way to end the battle. As Guanzi wrote: If one attacks a city or lays siege to a town so its occupants are forced to exchange their sons for food and crack their bones for cooking, such an attack is merely to uproot oneself…[6] Those that resort to deception to capture the city or win the battle can claim they are being good Confucians by winning with minimal bloodshed.

        The second example comes from the impetus and planning for the Battle of Maling. The rulers discussed the need to declare war on a mutual enemy on behalf of their ally. This would honor their alliance and maintain honor among the other leaders of the Warring States. That was the part that fulfilled Confucius’ advice for a sage not to be a crafty.  But that didn’t mean they marched straight at the army invading their neighbor. Doing so would have left their allies in a stronger position even if the won! They would relieve the siege of their ally’s capital by depleting their own resources for nothing gained except the abstract concept of honor.  Instead Sun Bin advised that they take an indirect route through their mutual enemies’ homeland. The campaign marched in the opposite direction of their besieged allies, protected their supply lines, offered an easier battle than lifting a siege, and left both their enemy and ostensible ally in a weaker position than the start of the war. This would place them in a stronger position to eventually conquer both. Thus, they were honorable by declaring war, but showed how they pursued their self-interest as well.

        By looking at how both statements can be true at the same time, to avoid being crafty and pursue a way of deception, we see insight into the nature of battle in Chinese history, the difference between treachery and deception, the moral role that deception can have, and how moral decisions can be used to advance self-interest. The writings of the masters, or scriptures are not catch phrases from fortune cookies or silver bullets for discussion boards. They are complex thoughts that try to prescribe moral behavior among an even more complex world.

        After this book is published, I plan to bring the same amount of analysis to Mormon scripture. Instead of simply having a favorite set of scriptures and downplaying the rest, or as the Chinese scholars complained of those that quoted Sunzi, “merely reciting empty words...without penetrating the depths of their teachings,”[7] we might instead consider how they interact with each other. I’ve already showed some of the interactions in posts like Nephite thought on warfare, and the word and the sword. I’m confident I’ll find more and the interplay between seemingly contradictory verses will be just as multifaceted as the examples I showed above. The scriptures deserve more than petty facebook pontificating and crafty attempts to ignore uncomfortable verses.

I work as a free lance author and researcher. Producing high quality, ad free research for more than a decade takes time and effort. If you found value in this work please consider supporting more of it by donating to the pay pal button below, or buying one of my books through the link at the top left. 


[1] Daivd Pulsipher, “The Ammonite Conundrum,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, (West Jordan UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 1-2.

[2] Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,)277.

[3] Analects of Confucius, Chichung Huang trans., (Oxford University Press, 1997,)111.

[4] Sunzi, in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Westview Press, 1993), 158.

[5] Benjamin Wallacker, “Two Concepts in Early Chinese Thought” in Chinese Warfare to 1600 Ed. By Peter Lorge (New York: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 235-240.

[6] Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,) 394.

[7] Questions and Replies Between Tang Taizong and Li Weikong in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Westview Press, 1993), 338,360  "People who study Sunzi today only recite emtpy words. Few grasp and extend his meaning."  Thus the study of military strategy must be from the lowest to the middle and then from the middle to the highest, so that they will gradually penetrate the depths of the teaching. If not, they will only be relying on empty words. Merely remembering and reciting them is not enough to succeed."

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